What makes a brilliant news story? In many ways, it boils down to whether it has some key ingredients and answers some vital questions. Done well, a story will fly – done badly, it just isn't news.
But how can you assess if your story is any good? I have put together my checklist to help, conveniently linked against a memorable word… AUTHENTIC.
Before you start writing your news story, you must think who the audience will be. If you are writing a story for your school website, it will have a different style and tone to one for the media. Parents will have a certain knowledge of the school – probably know who people are, school house names etc – but with a journalist and the general public, you must ensure you explain everything very clearly and concisely. Always write to your audience, redrafting text when cross-posting.
When sending a press release, you want to ensure the amount of time a journalist has to spend is kept to the absolute minimum – they haven't got the time to spend hours re-writing your story. Put the release in the body of the email, not as an attachment so they can assess its value instantly. Photos should not be uploaded to file sharing sites – add as attachments so they can instantly be seen. If you make it super easy for journalists, there is far more chance your story will be used.
Ask yourself – honestly – is this topic actually news? Is this a topic which I can credibly say is different, materially newsworthy or in any way unique? For schools, how is this topic different to any other school? Never mix different topics together to stretch into a story. If it feels contrived, it is. To find out more, see my other post: Is your school newsworthy?
News is not marketing and if your press release has the slightest whiff of marketing, cut it out. You cannot include Open Day dates in a news story, promotional spin or marketing slogans. If it feels like marketing, no journalist will want to use it. Marketing is not news. My other post – Is school news dead? – explains this in more detail.
With all good news stories, they must answer the five Ws of news – who, what, why, when, and where. Re-read your story and check if it's clear who it is about, what they were doing, when it took place and where. And keep asking why. Does it explain why this is relevant, why this is newsworthy, why anyone should spend time reading it? If not, re-write it until it is crystal clear why it matters. And in writing it, you must work within the parameters of never writing less than 300 words (you cannot answer the five Ws in less) and never usually more than 600 (it's too long and loses relevance). And finally, does the release contain any exclamation marks? If so, remove them!
For a story to have life, it needs to involve people. And people speak, have feelings, opinions and a voice – so let them speak from your release with a decent two paragraph quote every single time. If a story is about a pupil, it should have two quotes – one from the pupil and one from the Head. And never include a quote from a Head which feels promotional. Talk to them first – show them this blog post – and ensure the quotes are relevant, focused on the topic and breath life into the story.
News stories are never written in the first person. Do a quick search and find any mention of 'we' or 'our' not inside a quote. This needs to be re-written. News stories are reported text and so are always written in the third person. This is a golden rule of news – it should be concise, accessible to all, objective and make clear why it matters beyond the school gate.
No news story works without a decent photograph or two. It is absolutely vital that the photograph relates to the story and is not just a stock photo from a prospectus or view of the school buildings. It needs to add value to the story. Without a photo, the story is greatly diminished. And it goes without staying that the photo should be high resolution (over 2,000 pixels), in JPEG format, with a logical filename – and copyright released by the photographer so it is cleared for use by news providers. Any photo credit must also be clearly displayed.
Some news stories are reactive – a response to events and an opportunity to add a voice. But most releases are not and should form part of a very clear communications strategy, irrespective of the size of the school. All news stories therefore must be part of a bigger picture. That does not mean sending multiple releases at the same time – you will be unlikely to get coverage. Take time in preparing them. Check carefully, double-check and triple-check before sending. Write brilliantly, consistently and with interest. The value of your news will be increased immeasurably.
So whenever a news story is written, do make sure it is genuine, authoritative and AUTHENTIC.